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The Inventor and the Tycoon

Movies, money, and murder in the Gilded Age West.

(Page 3 of 3)



This soirée took place, incredibly enough, not six years after Muybridge stood trial for his life for murder. In 1874, after learning that he was probably not the father of his baby boy, the enraged photographer stalked his young wife Flora's lover and shot him point-blank and without remorse in a Calistoga miners' lodge. This revenge killing, which Ball places at the physical and dramatic center of his book, led to instant notoriety and a sensational trial in Napa. One of the three lawyers who represented Muybridge, Wirt Pendegast, was a friend of Stanford's who had earned the tycoon's appreciation when, as a California senator, he had pushed laws in the Central Pacific railroad's favor. Ball vividly conveys Pendegast's brilliant defense strategy – essentially, temporary insanity – and eloquent summary argument before the all-male jury, eleven of whom were married, "which made them perhaps more likely to sympathize with Muybridge, the enraged husband."
   
Readers should be warned that "The Inventor and the Tycoon," like the early motion pictures it discusses, is a bit jerky in its execution – but it is well worth sticking with beyond its shaky start. Unsure where to begin, Ball unfortunately front-loads his book with lots of throat-clearing (both a foreword and a preface!) and repetitive explanations of how his unlikely duo, "[u]sing horses and cameras and speed…built a technology of vision," and introduced "the element of speed to vision." Rather than build to the meeting of his two subjects and Muybridge's notorious crime, he jumps in headfirst and then splashes around in time to right his narrative. Eschewing chronology and trying to heighten momentum (if not suspense), Ball intercuts his various strands cinematographically, but the strain of integrating two such loosely connected biographies shows. The splicing and editing, particularly in his constant interruptions of the riveting courtroom drama of Muybridge's murder trial, often feel forced and disjointed.

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Yet despite these structural difficulties, Ball's generously illustrated, richly researched book offers no shortage of meaty material to chew over. In addition to the life stories of two noteworthy men, it provides an introduction to nineteenth-century California history – complete with its surprising political landscape (Stanford, although never popular, was briefly governor and later a state senator) and woeful record on human rights vis-à-vis the state's large population of Chinese and Mexican workers. In addition, the book offers a primer on the history of photographic technology from daguerrotypes to wet plates and celluloid. Ball's well-chosen illustrations lend eloquent support to his text; one especially interesting pair demonstrates the striking difference between Muybridge's 1875 photograph of a cemetery printed with and without the photographer's signature "cloud effect."

"The Inventor and the Tycoon" spools reels of topics meriting discussion, including parallels between our current gilded age of techno-billionaires and "the poisonously rich" of Stanford's era. Issues of unethical and often downright illegal financial maneuvers – "a classic two-sets-of-books accounting scheme," deliberate overbilling, and bilking the federal government out of vast sums -- sound uncomfortably familiar. In flagging Thomas Edison's penchant for peremptorily staking claims to others' "borrowed" ideas by filing "caveats," or announcements of research plans with the U.S. Patent Office, Ball's book also raises interesting questions about intellectual property and the fine line between sharing and poaching innovations. Add to all this the perennial conversation about whether Muybridge's act of murder really was justifiable – temporary insanity? a crime of passion? defense of marital rights? -- and you've got enough material to fuel several lively discussions.

Or make a movie.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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